Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound, and Revolution of the Electric Guitar - Alan di Perna, Brad Tolinski (2016)
Chapter 8. THE REVOLUTION WILL BE AMPLIFIED
Facing the largest audience he’d ever played to in his life, Jimi Hendrix flashed the peace sign with his left hand as his right began fingering a melody on the maple fretboard of his white 1968 Stratocaster. The tune was a familiar one, although not one of Hendrix’s many hits. Recognition rippled like an electric current through the rain-soaked, mud-sodden, drug-hungover but still largely jubilant crowd that had made it through to the final performance at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair on the morning of August 18, 1969.
Hendrix was playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
It was an unusual song choice for a rock show. But even more striking was what the guitarist did with it. His interpretation of the well-known composition’s first few phrases was faithful to the original, if decidedly nonchalant. While playing, he reached across to adjust the tuning on his guitar, something that had been giving him trouble throughout his set at Woodstock. But at the conclusion of the melodic phrase that accompanies the line “through the perilous fight,” Hendrix began to embellish the melody with improvised trills and melismas, claiming the age-old patriotic tune as his own—and on behalf of the newly fledged Woodstock Nation.
But mayhem didn’t truly break out until the part about “the rockets’ red glare.” That’s when Hendrix stepped on one of the effects pedals at his feet, unleashing an explosion of wild, atonal, freeform guitar feedback. This in itself was nothing new. Hendrix and other guitarists had been exploring the disruptive musical potential of guitar feedback for several years prior to this. But here he was putting the sound to thematic use—taking a well-known hymn to an American battle victory as an occasion to plunge his listeners into the chaotic and disquieting sonic reality of battle itself. And he was doing so at a time when resistance to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War had reached a fever pitch among youth culture. The message was not lost on his audience. Although the performance was strictly instrumental—everyone knew the words anyway—Hendrix was employing his electric guitar to make an eloquent and impassioned political statement.
The ominous duotone wail of a European police siren blasted from Hendrix’s Marshall amps to accompany—and offer mutely ironic comment on—the line “the bombs bursting in air.” Hendrix was yanking vigorously on the Stratocaster’s vibrato arm, eliciting descending shrieks in a playing technique that would come to be known as “divebombing.” But perhaps the most poignant moment followed the melodic passage for the line “that our flag was still there.” Here Hendrix played taps, the mournful bugle melody performed at military funerals. At that point, some 30,000 American lives had been lost in President Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War.
By the time the piece’s concluding chords rang out, it was clear that Jimi Hendrix had done something truly radical with the electric guitar. Something that outshone even his prior stellar accomplishments on the instrument. In the years immediately preceding Woodstock, the electric guitar had accompanied many songs of protest and conscience. But in Hendrix’s masterful hands the instrument itself did the talking. He had transformed the electric guitar into an instrument of political commentary and social change.
Looking on from backstage, Michael Lang—the Woodstock festival’s idealistic, youthful, curly-haired promoter—was deeply moved by Hendrix’s performance.
“ ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ really spoke volumes to everything we were doing,” Lang later commented. “Everything we’d been through.”
If a poll were taken to determine the single most influential electric guitar performance in the instrument’s entire history, the majority of votes would most likely go to this tour-de-force musical moment. For many, the very words “electric guitar” will immediately evoke visual images of Hendrix at Woodstock, attired in a Native American-style white leather tunic, fringed and turquoise-beaded, with a red headband wrapped around his Afro, his white Stratocaster hanging upside down from a shoulder strap (which is how the left-handed guitar titan played it). The instrument he played that day has itself taken on the aura of a holy relic. Purchased for a reported $2 million in 1998 by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, the Hendrix Woodstock Strat now resides in the collection at Allen’s Experience Music Project Museum in Seattle, where thousands annually make a pilgrimage to see it.
Apparently, though, Hendrix’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock was an impromptu one. If he’d been planning to do it, he hadn’t shared that information with his bandmates. They were as surprised as the audience when he whipped it out.
“On that song, Jimi started and I played the first five or six notes with him,” recalled Billy Cox, Hendrix’s bassist at Woodstock. “Then I said, ‘Wait a minute, we never rehearsed this before. This is quite different.’ And it was ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ one of the greatest solo songs of the festival.”
Legendary as it is, however, the Woodstock set was hardly one of Hendrix’s greatest live shows. Incessant rain and poor organization combined to create a performance space that posed a formidable challenge for all the artists who played at the festival. Backstage amenities were few and mud-sodden. The stage itself was still being built as the musicians played. Giant cranes and other construction equipment can be seen in the background in photos and film footage of Hendrix and other acts.
“The rain really put a wrinkle in the electrical connections, power…all of that stuff,” recalled bassist Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane, who also performed at Woodstock. “They tried to put up a couple of tarps to keep the rain off the stage. But the tarps just became water collectors. They’d start to sag and the water would come gushing down onto speakers, amplifiers, and everything. So there was a serious danger of getting a nasty shock, if not electrocuted outright.”
The moist conditions also wrought havoc with the tuning of Hendrix’s Stratocaster. But even more significant, he was backed that morning by the under-rehearsed and ill-prepared Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, an ad hoc aggregation of musical colleagues and jam buddies that Hendrix had recently put together following the mid-1969 dissolution of the group that had brought him to fame, the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Drummer Mitch Mitchell, a veteran of the Experience, was the only player besides Hendrix who’d had prior experience performing for a really large audience, although the Woodstock crowd outnumbered any audience they’d previously faced.
“Jimi looked out [at the audience] and said, ‘Oh my God,’ ” Cox recalled, “because he had never played for that many people. Mitch just said, ‘Oh,’ and I said, ‘Why did you guys get me in the middle of this?’But Jimi looked at it with his infinite wisdom and he says, ‘They’re sending a lot of energy to the bandstand. So what we’re going to do, we’re going to take that energy, absorb it, and send it back to them.’ We got onstage and we played for two hours.”
Not that it was two hours of unrelenting brilliance. The uneven set was largely held together by Hendrix’s own coruscating virtuosity. And if this meant stepping forward for a solo rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” so be it.
Of course the performance subsequently drew the outrage and ire of conservatives, who denounced it as disrespectful and unpatriotic. Hendrix backpedaled at the time, saying, “We’re all Americans…it was like ‘Go America!’ We play it the way the air is in America today. The air is slightly static, see.” But the guitarist knew full well what he’d been doing. Hendrix had spent a brief period in the army. He’d been forced to enlist as an alternative to being jailed at age nineteen for riding in stolen cars. He’d hated every second of military life and had been discharged as being unfit for duty, just barely missing deployment to Vietnam himself. But in the late sixties, an African American performer still had to be cautious about making public political statements. Radicals such as the Black Panthers were starting to speak out, but entertainers had to tread carefully. Besides, he’d already made his statement onstage at Woodstock. Hendrix was a master of the mutely articulate gesture.
“He would never raise his voice above a whisper,” recalled Hendrix’s fellow guitar hero Jeff Beck. “It was all in his expressions, in the hands. Unbelievable comedy and profound statements just by the raising of an eyebrow.”
Among Hendrix’s many achievements, he played a key role in reviving interest in the Stratocaster in the late sixties, a time when it had fallen out of favor. As we’ve seen, the British Invasion had brought Rickenbackers and Gretsches to the forefront. And by mid-decade, serious guitarists were starting to gravitate toward Gibson Les Pauls. The Stratocaster had come to seem a bit passé…First introduced in 1954, it was associated early on with the boy-next-door charm of Buddy Holly and, a little later, the clean-cut, fun-in-the-sun surf music sounds of the Beach Boys. Neither of these would be regarded as the epitome of cool at the decade’s end.
But Hendrix turned all of that around by embracing the Stratocaster as his main instrument. The spoken line “You’ll never hear surf music again,” in his 1967 recording “Third Stone from the Sun,” can be read as a nod to his willful and inspired transformation of the Stratocaster’s sound and image. No longer a musical surfboard, the Strat had been transformed into a multidimensional space hopper. Fifteen years after its inception, the Stratocaster experienced a rebirth, a glorious Second Coming, in the gifted hands of Jimi Hendrix.
The last great hurrah of the counterculture sixties, Woodstock was the third in a triumvirate of music festivals that defined the era. In so doing, they served to delineate and dramatize the expanding role of the electric guitar within the counterculture zeitgeist.
I. A TOOL OF CAPITALISM? DYLAN GOES ELECTRIC
It’s fairly common knowledge that Bob Dylan caused a furor by appearing onstage with an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival. Many people even know that this momentous event occurred in 1965. But from a distance of half a century, it’s difficult to grasp the full significance of this brief, three-song electric performance. It really is the “big bang” that created not only rock music as we know it today but also much of what we remember today as the counterculture sixties.
The festival itself had been taking place annually at Newport, Rhode Island, ever since its 1959 inception as a spinoff of the Newport Jazz Festival. By that point, a widespread and enthusiastic folk music revival was well under way in America. It had begun during the 1930s and ’40s with the work of archivists and musicologists such as John and Alan Lomax, who traveled to rural areas recording and collecting the traditional songs sung by farmers, laborers, and other largely nonprofessional performers. This in turn had led to the emergence of prominent professional folksingers such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger in the late forties. These and many other folksingers strongly allied themselves with liberal political causes, including civil rights and the labor movement.
The core audience for folk music was largely collegiate—young, well informed, and progressive-minded—although the fifties gave rise to a wider, less politicized audience for more mainstream folk ensembles such as the Kingston Trio, the New Christy Minstrels, and Peter, Paul & Mary. From edgy radicals to more accessible acts, the common denominator that united all of these performers under the “folk” rubric was the use of traditional acoustic instrumentation—guitars, banjos, mandolins, dulcimers, zithers, autoharps, harmonicas, accordions, and other homespun implements. There was a strong sense that these were instruments “of the people.” The folksinger’s commitment to these instruments was ideological—moral, even. They were the honest tools of those in service of a righteous cause. Woody Guthrie famously emblazoned his acoustic guitar with the slogan THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS, thus beginning a long tradition of using a guitar as a political statement—a tradition that would come to include both Jimi Hendrix and Guthrie’s fervent admirer Bob Dylan.
Dylan had emerged within the folk scene of the early sixties. He quickly became noted as a supremely gifted writer of anthemic political songs such as “Masters of War,” “Blowing in the Wind,” “With God on Our Side,” “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” compositions that spoke out eloquently against war, racism, and other social ills. Like many folksingers, he played acoustic guitars—a variety of Martins and Gibsons—and harmonicas held in playing position by a metal rack around his neck.
But Dylan was also a baby boomer. He had grown up on the first great wave of rock and roll, and had played in rock bands during his high school years. And, like many his age, he’d become deeply enamored of the music that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones brought to the fore in the mid-sixties. So it was natural for him to want to incorporate some of the electric guitar sounds he was hearing from those groups into his own music. Electrified timbres also seemed to suit a new direction his lyrics were taking at the time, veering away from political themes and more toward personal concerns and free-associative, surrealist imagery.
In March of 1965, Dylan released his first recordings with electric guitar, bass, and drum kit accompaniment as part of his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home. It was followed three months later by his first hit record, the fully electrified six-minute opus “Like a Rolling Stone.” These recordings were generally reviled by folk purists, who felt that Dylan had betrayed their cause. Feelings of this nature were very much in the air when, just a week after the release of “Like a Rolling Stone,” Dylan appeared at Newport, backed by a full electric blues/rock-and-roll band.
It was his third Newport performance. Over the course of the previous two, he’d confirmed his stature as king of the festival and the new young champion of folk music. But the reception he received was somewhat more ambivalent when he stepped onto the stage dressed in a slim-cut leather jacket, with a sunburst 1964 Fender Stratocaster hanging from his shoulder and flanked by five musicians with even more electric instruments. It must have seemed like a hostile takeover to some of the folkies in attendance—a suspicion apparently confirmed when Dylan and his group launched into a frenetic, up-tempo performance of “Maggie’s Farm” from Bringing It All Back Home. Lyrically, the song has been interpreted as a middle finger raised at folk music. But even those who didn’t catch the words certainly got the message anyway. For many in attendance, those electric guitars were a far bigger insult than being flipped the bird. As the song crashed to a raucous halt, Dylan and his band were greeted with a mixture of cheering and booing.
It has retrospectively been claimed that reports of the audience’s negative response were greatly exaggerated. Yet boos are clearly audible in recordings of the set. One report has claimed that an audience member jeered, “Go back to The Ed Sullivan Show!”—an unfavorable reference to performances by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and other pop groups on the popular television program.
“The electric guitar represented capitalism…the people who were selling out,” the folksinger Oscar Brand later commented, in explanation of the crowd’s response.
Dylan and his band followed “Maggie’s Farm” with two more songs: “Like a Rolling Stone” and an early draft of a song Dylan would record soon thereafter, “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” Neither did much more than “Maggie’s Farm” to win over skeptics in the audience. One of them, Pete Seeger, the evening’s host, wasn’t thrilled. At the concert’s outset, Seeger had announced from the stage that the night was going to address serious issues such as civil rights and the Vietnam War. Now here was young Dylan screeching inscrutably about jugglers, clowns, and chrome horses to strident, electrified accompaniment. Not that Seeger could hear much of the lyrics, which was a big part of his beef.
“I was absolutely screaming mad,” he recalled. “You couldn’t understand a goddamn word of what they were singing.” On being forcibly kept from the sound mixing board, where he’d hoped to adjust the balance more in favor of the vocals, Seeger remarked, “If I had an axe, I’d cut the cable.” (It was later reported—erroneously, Seeger claimed to his dying day—that he had actually made such an attempt.)
AS MUCH AS people took note of the new, leather-clad Bob Dylan, many were equally shocked or entranced—depending on their perspective—by the intense, wild-eyed young man to Dylan’s right, playing frenzied lead guitar through an Epiphone Futura amp. This was Michael Bloomfield of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Hunched over his white 1963 Fender Telecaster, Bloomfield was particularly manic on “Maggie’s Farm,” answering Dylan’s vocal lines with snarling bursts of wicked-fast blues riffing. He acquitted himself equally well on the remaining two tunes, his grainy licks and manic meter straining at the boundaries of the song arrangements like a wild horse bolting a racecourse fence.
Bloomfield had played lead guitar on the studio recording of “Like a Rolling Stone.” The hot-wired frenzy of his Telecaster stylings are essential to the track’s giddy forward momentum, building climactically to set up each “How does it feel” refrain. His playing would become integral to the album Dylan would soon release, the groundbreaking Highway 61 Revisited.
The two men were kindred spirits. Dylan and Bloomfield had both grown up Jewish in the American Midwest. Both had become passionately involved in the folk music scene, Bloomfield studying acoustic guitar at the Old Town School of Folk Music in his native Chicago. They’d first met at a club Dylan had played on the Chicago folk circuit, an encounter Dylan would later remember more vividly than Bloomfield.
“He played all kinds of things,” Dylan recalled. “Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson—that type of thing. He just played circles around anything I could play, and I always remembered that.”
But folk and acoustic blues represented just one area of Bloomfield’s expertise. From his teen years onward, he had also been venturing into the sweatbox blues clubs of Chicago’s African American South Side, where pioneering electric bluesmen like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Magic Sam were dishing out dirty amped-up blues to boozy, boisterous crowds on a nightly basis. Turning his attention to the electric guitar, Bloomfield was soon good enough for Waters and other leading Chicago bluesmen to invite him to join them onstage. He became close friends with Waters, Big Joe Turner, and other seminal blues musicians, drinking and getting high with them, traveling with them, and generally absorbing their wisdom and way of life.
In the late 1950s and early ’60s, a young white guitarist rarely gained that kind of intimate access to the source of the electric blues.
“I remember going to some of those blues clubs much later, in 1965,” recalled Bloomfield’s friend, Jefferson Airplane lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, “and you needed somebody to go with, otherwise you’d get your ass whipped. Michael came up through the real, no-bullshit blues scene.”
There was a definite buzz on Bloomfield when Dylan tapped him to perform on “Like a Rolling Stone” and the other tracks that would go to make up Highway 61 Revisited.
“I saw him at a few parties,” Bloomfield recalled of Dylan, “and then out of the clear-blue sky he called me on the phone to cut a record. So I bought a Fender, a really good guitar for the first time in my life, without a case, a Telecaster…I had never been on a professional, big-time session with studio musicians. I didn’t know anything. I liked the songs. If you had been there, you would have seen it was a very disorganized, weird scene. Since then I’ve played on millions of sessions and I realize how really weird that Dylan session was.”
Dylan was attempting something unprecedented; the intuitive, largely unspoken understanding between Bloomfield and Dylan was vital to making Highway 61 the brilliant, revolutionary album that is so revered today. And as Dylan’s role on electric guitar was not that much different from what he played on acoustic guitar—a strummed chordal accompaniment to his vocals—it was Bloomfield’s job to find the right embellishments and tonal colors on lead guitar.
“It was never like, ‘Here’s one of the tunes and we’re gonna learn it and work out the arrangement,’ ” Bloomfield said of the sessions. “That just wasn’t done. The thing just sort of fell together in this haphazard, half-assed way. It was like a jam session…[Dylan] had a sound in mind, because he had heard records from the Byrds that knocked him out. He wanted me to play like [Byrds guitarist Roger] McGuinn. That’s what he was shooting for. It was even discussed. He said, ‘I don’t want any of that B.B. King shit, man.’ Dylan would play me Cher’s versions of his songs. And different English versions, Animals versions, but the Byrds sound is what he wanted to get in his sessions.”
At the time he went into the studio with Bob Dylan, Bloomfield had already joined the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The group had been signed to Elektra Records, but had yet to release a recording. Formed by Chicago-based blues harmonica ace Paul Butterfield, the group was the first racially integrated electric blues band that had come to prominence, with Howlin’ Wolf’s rhythm section of bassist Jerome Arnold and drummer Sam Lay playing alongside Butterfield, Bloomfield, second guitarist Elvin Bishop, vocalist Nick Gravenites, and keyboard player Mark Naftalin.
Along with John Mayall, the Butterfield Band is at the generative heart of the sixties counterculture’s subsequent passionate embrace not just of the blues, but also the language and other aspects of African American culture. For years to come, a blues jam would be taken as a measure of a band’s authenticity and essential truth.
And inadvertently, the Butterfield Band inspired Dylan’s decision to go electric at Newport. They had also played at the festival, at a Saturday afternoon blues workshop, but had been given a condescending spoken introduction by Alan Lomax, who evidently shared the folk-purist disdain for electric instrumentation, and also apparently had a problem with white people playing the blues. This incensed both Dylan and his manager, Albert Grossman. The latter actually came to blows with Lomax over the incident.
But while those two titans of the folk business rolled in the dust trading punches, Dylan came up with a far better plan of retribution; he’d have members of the Butterfield Band back him up on a selection of his new electric songs during his festival performance on the evening of Sunday, July 25, 1965. Albert Grossman employee and roadie Jonathan Taplin was present when the momentous decision was made. “Dylan just got a hair up his ass: ‘Well fuck them if they think they can keep electricity out of here. I’ll do it.’ On a whim, he said he wanted to play electric.”
Mike Bloomfield was delegated to assemble the backing band. Assuming lead guitar duties, he put the Butterfield rhythm section of Arnold and Lay together with organist Al Kooper, who’d also played on “Like a Rolling Stone,” and electric pianist Barry Goldberg. A hasty rehearsal took place the evening before the performance at the home of festival organizer George Wein. (This is why Dylan and his group only performed three songs together the following evening. That’s all they’d had time to prepare.)
Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul & Mary, was the sound engineer for the evening, and in film footage of the afternoon soundcheck with Dylan and his band, Yarrow is seen pleading with the musicians to remember their soundcheck volume levels and not to deviate from them during the show. Yarrow had taken on an immensely challenging job. Electric guitars have a much wider dynamic range—the sonic distance between a whisper and full blast—than their acoustic counterparts. During the concert, Yarrow quickly learned what all rock soundmen now know: bands play louder when they’re all vibed up in front of an audience than they do at soundcheck. But live sound reinforcement for rock bands wouldn’t reach anything like maturity until way into the seventies. It’s a very different craft from miking up some folkie grandma with a dulcimer in her lap.
That night, Dylan and his electric band followed traditional banjo picker Cousin Emmy onto the Newport stage. By the time they’d left it, both folk music and rock music had been changed deeply and permanently. As an indicator of the performance’s cultural importance, the Stratocaster Dylan played at Newport sold for a record $965,000 in 2015.
Bloomfield’s Newport Tele didn’t do too badly either when it sold for $45,000 in a 2015 auction, a pretty good price for an instrument that had been heavily hacked up and butchered after leaving Bloomfield’s hands. Heritage, the auction house that handled the sale, billed the instrument as “the guitar that killed folk.”
WITH THE NEWPORT set and Highway 61, Bob Dylan officially joined a movement he had helped inspire when rock and pop acts like the Byrds, the Turtles, and Cher had begun recording electrified versions of his songs, and making hits of them. The first salvo had been fired by the Byrds’ 1965 recording of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which prominently featured the same Rickenbacker 360 electric twelve-string model that George Harrison had popularized. “Folk-rock” was the name given to this new musical hybrid. It was the first of many hyphenated rock subgenres that would arise in the years to come. And in many ways it was the most important. Folk-rock represented an unprecedented merging of the collegiate folk audience with the fanatically devoted teen audience that had sprung up around the Beatles, Stones, and similar artists. With this convergence of two different but closely aligned tribes, rock music came of age as a credible and vibrant art form.
Clocking in at six minutes and thirteen seconds, “Like a Rolling Stone” broke the age-old three-minute song limit of Top 40 radio. Columbia, Dylan’s record label, was reluctant to release it for that reason, but it was a smash hit nonetheless—and despite the fact that its multi-verse format owes more to folk balladry than anything that had hitherto happened in rock and roll or any other pop genre. Dylan’s wildly imagistic lyrics had liberated rock and pop tunesmiths from having to write exclusively about romance, cars, or surfing. This would have a powerful effect on songwriters such as John Lennon, who almost immediately began crafting more introspective material.
Dozens of folk-rock groups—including Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, the Lovin’ Spoonful, Simon & Garfunkel, the Mamas & the Papas, and many lesser-known, one-hit wonders—began to emerge in ’65 and ’66. Protest music—from Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” to Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” to Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence”—became popular as the collegiate folk community’s political engagement and social activism spilled over into the rock-and-roll arena. The youthful sound of the electric guitar was integral to all these recordings.
What Dylan had done at Newport was to make manifest a fundamental but hitherto unarticulated truth—rock-and-roll music, as it existed at that time, essentially was electrified folk music. As with true folk music, there was no system of formalized instruction for rock, nor were there any reliable written transcriptions of rock-and-roll songs, let alone rock guitar solos. Rock electric guitarists learned their craft by copying what they heard on records or getting together informally with like-minded players to trade information and licks. That is, they made it up as they went along. In this regard, rock at this juncture was more folk than folk. You could go to a place like the Old Town School of Folk Music to learn the intricacies of acoustic fingerpicking. There was no equivalent for rock guitar.
As liberating as Dylan and folk-rock were for songwriters, their rise to prominence was an equal boon for electric guitarists. Along with political sensibilities, the collegiate folk audience brought new listening habits to the rock forum. People began to listen to rock music seriously and analytically, rather than just as a backdrop for dancing or beach parties. This meant that they began paying more attention to instrumentalists. The prospect of being taken seriously as a musician began to attract folk players into the rock idiom. Many of the rock era’s most influential electric guitarists—including Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, and Roger McGuinn—had all started out as folkies, subsequently making the switch to electric.
But it was Michael Bloomfield who opened the door. While the term “guitar hero” has become overused, Bloomfield was nonetheless the archetype for this cultural phenomenon—the first guitarist to captivate the newly emergent rock audience with his virtuosity and imaginative approach to the instrument. His work on Highway 61 gave him a high degree of visibility at a time just before the ascendancy of Clapton, Hendrix, and all the other iconic players whose names are perhaps more widely known today. Together with the poet Allen Ginsberg, Dylan, Bloomfield, and Kooper also exemplified a new breed of Jewish American cool—urban, literate, laconically hip. Dylan printed his poetry and stream-of-consciousness prose on his album back covers and inner sleeves. Bloomfield was a voracious reader. When he came upon a book he particularly loved, he was known to have eaten the pages, as if hungry to absorb the wisdom and beauty contained therein. This hunger and obsessive, almost psychotic, sense of urgency came across dynamically in his playing.
Following the Highway 61 sessions, Dylan offered Bloomfield a spot in his touring band, but Bloomfield declined the offer, preferring to stick with Butterfield and the blues, even though that option promised less financial reward than being Dylan’s guitar man. The position ended up going to Robbie Robertson, along with the group we know today as the Band. Booing and jeering the electric guitar became a semi-regular ritual as that ensemble toured England with Dylan in 1965-’66. Cries of “Judas!” from disgruntled audience members were not uncommon. At one infamous concert, Dylan responded to the accusation by saying, “I don’t believe you; you’re a liar,” before introducing “Like a Rolling Stone” and instructing his band to “Play it fucking loud.”
Given Mike Bloomfield’s ambivalent attitude toward fame, and the kind of mass hysteria it can induce, it was probably for the best that he stepped off the Dylan roller coaster when he did. His position with Butterfield certainly afforded more opportunity for instrumental improvisation than there would have been backing a poet/lyricist like Dylan. Bloomfield’s work on the Butterfield Band’s eponymous debut album in ’65 and their ’66 follow-up, East-West, was assiduously studied by guitarists. Along with spirited interpretations of the twelve-bar Chicago blues format, East-West’s hugely influential title track was an epic thirteen-minute instrumental piece that incorporated elements of jazz and Indian classical raga improvisation on electric guitar.
This was music to sit and listen to with focused, meditative attention, very much the way one listens to jazz, for instance. But where the saxophone was perhaps the ultimate instrument for jazz improvisation, the electric guitar took on that role in the burgeoning new rock medium, which was expanding to embrace elements of jazz, blues, folk, and raga, among other stylistic mediums. At this time, young rock fans had also started to embrace something that had long been a favorite among jazz musicians and some of their listeners—marijuana. This too would color the new attitude toward the appreciation and consumption of rock music then fomenting.
Dylan had somewhat famously introduced the Beatles to pot in 1964, and young fans of both acts were soon following suit. Beyond that, hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, and peyote were also coming into vogue, popularized by counterculture figures like Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary and novelist Ken Kesey with his bacchanalian acidhead entourage, the Merry Pranksters. The kind of music that Bloomfield and the Butterfield Band were creating on “East-West” made ideal listening for people in the states of expanded consciousness and heightened sensory awareness fostered by marijuana and hallucinogens. Bloomfield is said to have composed “East-West” in the aftermath of an LSD trip.
BLOOMFIELD USED HIS popularity to act as a tireless advocate for the blues. It was he who convinced entrepreneur Bill Graham to book B. B. King into Graham’s influential San Francisco rock concert venue, the Fillmore. Graham had never heard of King.
“Bill hired B.B. just on Michael’s word that this guy was the best,” recalled Butterfield vocalist Nick Gravenites. “And it was from that point that Bill started to hire blues bands along with the hippie bands. It was essentially Michael clueing him in that there were all these great bands out there that he could hire.”
But of course Bloomfield’s influence was most strongly felt among other guitarists. It was during his time with Butterfield that Bloomfield switched from his Telecaster to a 1956 Gibson Les Paul goldtop. His purchase of the instrument did not go unremarked in the electric guitar community. With the Les Paul out of production at the time, a market for vintage ones quickly took shape. This was the start of the vintage electric guitar boom that would become a multimillion-dollar business in subsequent decades.
“Prior to Bloomfield, I saw very little evidence of interest in paying much for a used electric rather than a new one, and recognizing one as being special,” the noted vintage guitar dealer and authority George Gruhn recalled. “But when Bloomfield did it, it happened almost overnight.”
By 1967, Bloomfield had moved on to a new band, the Electric Flag, and a new guitar, a 1959 sunburst Les Paul Standard. His switch was motivated in part by Eric Clapton’s use of a ’60 Standard on the Mayall/Clapton “Beano” album. But Bloomfield had also spent a lot of time playing a Standard owned by a friend, Lovin’ Spoonful guitarist John Sebastian. Once again, his change of instruments had a dramatic and immediate effect on the vintage guitar market, doing much to cement the Standard’s reputation as the ultimate Les Paul and, indeed, the ultimate electric guitar.
“When Bloomfield was playing a goldtop, people didn’t want the sunburst [Standard],” Gruhn recalled.
People told me, “The Standard’s not the right guitar. Those tune-o-matic bridges kill sustain. And those metal-covered humbucking pickups, they just sound sickly sweet and syrupy. They don’t have bite like those good P-90s.” They’d pay me six or seven hundred dollars for a goldtop. But for a sunburst, they didn’t want to pay more than two-fifty. But within two weeks after Bloomfield switched to a ’burst that all changed. There was one guy who’d told me how the tune-o-matic and humbuckers were no good—he denied ever having said anything of the sort.
Bloomfield’s ’59 Les Paul Standard also figured prominently on the cover of the guitarist’s post-Electric Flag recording project, the monumentally influential Super Session album with keyboardist and fellow Highway 61 sessioneer Al Kooper. In his newly assumed role as an A&R man for Columbia Records, Kooper had the idea of assembling a rock album the same way jazz albums are created—by bringing together a group of handpicked instrumentalists and allowing them to stretch out and improvise in the studio. Released in May of 1968, Super Session was so successful that it engendered a follow-up concert recording later that year, The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper.
Unfortunately, Bloomfield’s career started to go downhill after that. Chronic insomnia, drug use, and a deep-seated antipathy toward commercial success all combined to make him an unreliable performer. He’d miss concert and recording dates, something he repeatedly did with Kooper. His indifference to fame or fortune made him generally unwilling to jump through all the hoops that go with a career in music. He remained sporadically active throughout the seventies, but died a sad, premature, and drug-related death in 1981. The influence he exerted in the latter half of the sixties, however, cannot be overstated. Bob Dylan himself called Bloomfield “the best guitar player I ever heard, on any level.”
II. MACHINE-GUN LOUD: FROM TOWNSHEND TO HENDRIX
The vogue for extended rock guitar improvisation manifested itself just as strongly, if somewhat differently, in England as it had in the United States in 1965. One of the groups at the vanguard of this phenomenon was the Yardbirds. They were the first big rock band that had people focusing on the guitar playing more than the vocals. During the Yardbirds’ early career (1963-65), with Eric Clapton on lead guitar, they’d established a format for inserting passages of freeform electric guitar and amped-up blues harmonica soloing into their songs. This became known as a “rave-up,” an abrupt shift in tempo from the main body of the song, building to a climax fueled by an ascending bass line. It was at this time that CLAPTON IS GOD graffiti started appearing on the walls of London.
As a guitarist, how do you follow that? Impossible—unless you’re Jeff Beck. When Beck replaced Clapton in the Yardbirds in mid-1965, the band was able to forge even more adventurous new paths for the electric guitar. And Beck was able to pursue experimental sonic directions he’d started with earlier groups such as the Night Shift and the Tridents, exploring musical applications for electric guitar feedback, distortion, and other sounds hitherto considered undesirable.
“I had a terrible amp back then that fed back anyway,” Beck later explained. “When we started playing big ballrooms, you’d turn up the volume and…wheeeeee. And everybody would start looking at me thinking I wanted to be dead because I’d made this mistake. So I had to turn a horrible sound into a tune, to make them think I meant it. That’s where it all came from—the inability of sound systems to cope with the needed volume.”
Unlike Clapton or Bloomfield, Beck was no blues purist, although he could certainly whip out a wicked twelve-bar when the occasion demanded. His early influences were more along the lines of country and rockabilly players such as Chet Atkins and Cliff Gallup, the lead guitarist in Gene Vincent’s band, and Les Paul’s “New Sound” recordings of the fifties.
Beck’s tenure with the Yardbirds, starting in 1965, gave him an opportunity to bring his own new sounds to the top of the pop charts, beginning with the hit single “Heart Full of Soul.” Released in June of that year—a month before Dylan went electric at Newport—it was the follow-up to “For Your Love” (the hit debut single that had caused Clapton to quit the band because it wasn’t a blues number).
Yardbirds producer/manager Giorgio Gomelsky hired a sitarist and accompanist on tabla (a pair of Indian hand drums) to play on “Heart Full of Soul.” They were accomplished Indian classical musicians—which turned out to be a problem. The rhythmic organization of Indian classical music is very different from that of Western music. So the sitarist and tabla player couldn’t nail the song’s very basic four-beat time signature.
“It was totally magical, what he was doing,” Beck said of the sitar player, “but it just didn’t have any groove to it. I showed him on guitar what I thought would be a good idea [for the song’s main riff]. And everybody said, ‘That sounds great. Let’s just leave that.’ ”
Two things enabled Beck to emulate the sound of the sitar. One was the fact that, unlike most rock guitarists, he picks with his fingers rather than a guitar pick. The technique enabled him to sound a sitar-like drone on his guitar’s open D string, while employing other fingers to play the song’s main riff on the higher strings, bending notes microtonally in an intuitive approximation of Indian classical scale intervals.
The other thing that enabled Beck to emulate the buzzy string sound of the sitar on his Esquire was an electrical device connected between the guitar and the amp—a fuzzbox, or fuzz pedal. Foot-pedal effects devices for guitarists would soon become commonplace, but they were still fairly novel in 1965, Gibson having introduced what’s generally acknowledged to be the first fuzzbox, the Maestro FZ-1, back in 1962. The device had been invented to emulate the way a tube amplifier sounds when turned up sufficiently to produce distortion—a raw, grainy sound that occurs when the overdriven amp starts to produce harmonic overtones not present in the original signal.
The fuzzbox that Beck used for the main riff on “Heart Full of Soul” was a device lent to him by his close friend Jimmy Page, a custom box designed and built by Roger Mayer, who would go on to create guitar effects devices for Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, and others. Beck’s use of fuzz on “Heart Full of Soul” predated Keith Richards’s prominent use of a Gibson FZ-1 fuzzbox on the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” by a little over a month. It is truly a landmark recording. For the song’s guitar solo, Beck opted to use another early fuzz pedal, a Sola Sound Tone Bender. Soon, an ever-growing array of effects pedals would provide guitarists with a relatively easy and affordable way to customize their tone.
Mid-sixties Yardbirds tracks such as “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” “Heart Full of Soul,” “Shapes of Things,” and “Over Under Sideways Down” played a vanguard role in establishing the late-sixties vogue for psychedelic rock music. The sound was very much based around fuzzy sitar emulations and extended electric guitar improvisations loosely emulating Indian classical scales. Psychedelic rock would form the context for Jimi Hendrix’s emergence in 1967. The electric guitar simulations of bomb blasts and ambulance sirens in Hendrix’s Woodstock performance were first heard three years earlier on the aforementioned “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” one of the few Yardbirds tracks to feature both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.
IN TERMS OF exploiting feedback and other noisy artifacts of electric guitar pickups and amps, there was one guitarist in London at the time pushing the envelope even further than Beck or anyone else. That was Pete Townshend of the Who. The son of a professional big band sax player, Townshend had absorbed a variety of guitar influences growing up—from jazzmen like Wes Montgomery and Johnny Smith, to country and early rock players such as Chet Atkins and James Burton, to bluesmen including John Lee Hooker.
But Townshend brought another, entirely different set of influences from his training in contemporary visual arts at Ealing Art College during the Who’s formative years. While there, he studied with Gustav Metzger, one of the chief founders of the “auto-destructive” movement in art. Metzger’s work included things like acid action painting, which involved flinging hydrochloric acid onto sheets of nylon, causing the nylon to corrode in an array of colors. His Construction with Glass consisted of glass sheets suspended from a gallery ceiling by adhesive tape. As the tape gave way, the glass sheets crashed and shattered onto the concrete floor below.
“Auto-destructive art is an attack on capitalist values and the drive toward nuclear annihilation,” Metzger wrote in a 1961 manifesto. And in an earlier manifesto, from 1959, he’d stated, “The amplified sound of the auto-destructive process can be an element of the total conception.”
Young Townshend took this very much to heart, applying it to his guitar playing. Where the youthful Jeff Beck had attempted to make “a tune,” in his own words, from accidental bursts of feedback, Townshend deliberately sought ways to maximize the atonal and disruptive qualities of feedback. Onstage, he would slam his guitar into the amplifier’s speaker cabinet, making it howl with feedback, and rub the rough metal clutch of a mic stand up and down the guitar strings to create a screeching cacophony. Another strategy was to flick the pickup-selector toggle switch up and down violently.
“The toggle switch thing was to make the guitar sound like a machine gun when it was feeding back,” Townshend explained.
To me the guitar was a symbol. It was a metaphor for a machine gun. And the only thing you could do with a machine gun in the sixties was break it across your legs. That’s what I did. Because I was in this mode where the guitar was a weapon, most of the techniques I used were very violent, virulent, and aggressively expressive. They were all part of the art school tradition that I’d got of breaking the rules. I was at an art school where the course was dedicated to breaking the rules, and I just drafted that into my work as a guitar player.
Some of these subversive sonic strategies made their way on to early Who singles such as “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” and the Mod anthem “My Generation.” Back in 1964, as we’ve seen, the Beatles had incorporated the first-ever use of guitar feedback on a pop record, in the intro to their single “I Feel Fine.” One year later, Townshend took that a step further by integrating feedback into the guitar solo in “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”—a tactic that would soon be employed by countless rock guitarists. As for “My Generation,” it is particularly notable for its outro barrage of chaotic wailing feedback and frenzied drumming—a suitably apocalyptic conclusion for a record that contained the famous line “Hope I die before I get old.”
Sonic phenomena such as these were even more dramatically felt in the Who’s live performances. Along with his exceptional abilities as a songwriter and guitarist, Townshend was much more of a showman than contemporaries such as Clapton, Beck, or Page. He developed a series of dramatic gestures to reinforce his aggressive guitar techniques. The most famous of these is the “windmill,” a move Townshend originally appropriated from Keith Richards but took to much more dramatic extremes. The Townshendesque windmill is a frenetic circular flailing of the right arm, like a clock run amok, to drive home his power chords.
But of course the ultimate in aggressive electric guitar performance technique pioneered by Townshend was smashing his guitar to splinters—slamming it down hard on the stage, the amplifiers, drums, and anything else that came within range until the instrument was destroyed. For many years, this was the cathartic climax to live performances by the Who, almost the inevitable outcome of their intensely furious approach to playing rock music. But like many innovations, it was born of a freak accident. This one took place in the autumn of 1964 during a gig at London’s Railway Hotel, a cramped performance space with a low ceiling.
“I started to knock the guitar about a lot, hitting it on the amps to get banging noises and things like that, and it had started to crack,” Townshend recalled.
It banged against the ceiling and smashed a hole in the plaster, and the guitar head actually poked through the ceiling plaster. When I brought it out, the top of the neck was left behind. I couldn’t believe what happened. There were a couple of people I knew from art school at the front of the stage and they were laughing their heads off. One of them was literally rolling about on the floor laughing and his girlfriend was kind of looking at me smirking, you know, going, “flash cunt” and all that. So I just got really angry and got what was left of the guitar and smashed it to smithereens. About a month earlier I’d managed to scrape together enough [money] for a 12-string Rickenbacker, which I only used on two or three numbers. It was lying at the side of the stage, so I just picked it up, plugged it in and gave them a sort of look and carried on playing as if I’d meant to do it. The next week I went back there [to the Railway], and there was a whole crowd waiting to see this lunatic break his guitar.
Townshend had done his art school mentor proud. If, as Gustav Metzger had written, auto-destructive art was an attack on capitalism, and the electric guitar, as folksinger Oscar Brand had said, was a symbol of capitalism, what could be more revolutionary than smashing a guitar? Shocking, confrontational, or provocative gestures have always been a key ingredient in rock music, from Presley’s pelvic gyrations onward. But Townshend’s guitar smashing took this to a new extreme, one that defied the centuries-old tradition that musicians are supposed to love and cherish their instrument. In this context Townshend and the Who are often, and rightly, regarded as forerunners of punk rock, also notable for its defiant non-musicianly stance.
All theory aside, the Who’s gear bashing was just incredibly exciting—an acting-out of the audience members’ youthful frustrations and anger at authority. The ultimate “fuck you” gesture. But on a pragmatic level, it was also a damnably expensive enterprise for a band just struggling to establish itself. Townshend had played Rickenbacker guitars early on with the Who. But these are relatively fragile instruments that smash a little too easily, as the incident at the Railway Hotel had proven. So Townshend switched to Fenders for a while. They’re more rugged—built to withstand punishment. And they were designed for ease of repair, so guitar necks, bodies, pickups, and other spare parts could be salvaged from each evening’s wreckage and recombined to build new guitars.
During the Who’s early career, Townshend played through Fender amps as well. But he was soon to play a key role in the development of what would become the ultimate rock guitar amp, the 100-watt Marshall stack.
LONDON-BORN BIG BAND drummer, vocalist, and tap dancer Jim Marshall had opened a drum shop on Uxbridge Road in London in 1960. He soon expanded into the sale of other musical instruments, including electric guitars and amps. This was at the urging of local rock musicians who began to frequent his shop, among them Pete Townshend. Marshall had long been a friend, and even former bandmate, of Townshend’s sax-playing dad, Cliff. This might well have predisposed the London shop owner to favor young Peter and his typically astute observations.
“Pete was one of the ones who came to me and said, ‘In the music shops of West London they treat us like idiots because we play rock and roll. So why don’t you sell amplifiers and guitars in your shop?’ ” Marshall recalled. “I said, ‘Well, I know a lot about drums but not guitars and amps. But I’ll have a go at this.’ I did and it was successful right from the word go.”
Along with Townshend, the notable or soon-to-be-notable guitarists who frequented Marshall’s shop included Ron Wood of the Faces and Rolling Stones, Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple, and session guitar ace Big Jim Sullivan. Having persuaded Marshall to sell guitar gear, these players next suggested that Marshall turn his hand to building guitar amps and selling them at his shop. “They came to me and said that the guitar amplifiers then available weren’t built for their type of music,” Marshall recalled.
While Marshall had done electronic work on fighter aircraft during World War II, he’d had no prior experience with audio electronics. He had, however, hired a young musician named Ken Bran to do amp repairs at the shop. To this he added a third team member, a promising apprentice technician from EMI named Dudley Craven. By 1962 the three of them had come up with a prototype 35-watt guitar amp. It was based on a Fender Bassman amplifier, Fender amps being a big seller at Marshall’s shop. But the design employed some different electronic components—ones that were more readily available in the U.K. at the time.
Also, rather than housing the electronics and speakers all in the same enclosures, Marshall decided to have separate enclosures for each—a “head” containing the electronics and front-panel volume and tone controls, and a larger cabinet containing just the speakers. This design had been used by other amp manufacturers, including Fender, but it would become more of a necessity as guitar amplifiers grew louder and more powerful. The separate enclosures did a better job of isolating the electronics, which do the delicate work of amplifying a signal, from the speaker cabinet and its violent sonic vibration. Within a few years, rock guitarists would be stacking one cabinet atop another to achieve even greater volume levels.
Jim Marshall himself devised the cabinet design, which contained within it four 12-inch speakers wired up to deliver maximum power, and a panel sealing off the back of the enclosure. The Marshall speaker cabinet’s closed back also gave it a different sound from Fenders and other amps with open-back cabinets. This, combined with the different components in the circuitry, made for a completely new and distinctive tonality—one that would become known as the legendary “Marshall sound.” Prior amplifiers had been designed to avoid distortion. The Marshall amp was designed from the ground up specifically to distort, and to sound great doing so. Originally christened the Mark II, this early Marshall amp was eventually named the JTM45. The initials stood for Jim and Terry Marshall. (Terry was Jim’s son, a sax player in a local London group called the Flintstones.)
By late 1962, the JTM45 was in production and selling briskly. As a domestic U.K. product, it offered better value for money than U.S. imports such as Fender amps, which were costly to ship across the Atlantic. And the Marshall amp was specifically voiced for the way young London was making rock music at the time. As Jim Marshall ramped up the manufacturing side of his business, he, Bran, and Craven were continually fine-tuning and upgrading the JTM45 in the eternal quest for more volume and better tone.
This was one of Jim Marshall’s many gifts: his willingness to listen to young rock musicians. Most of his generation despised the belligerent primitivism of rock and roll. Marshall took a broader view. He once attended an early Who show with Pete’s dad. As a guy who built and sold music gear for a living, Marshall was quite pleased to see the up-and-coming pop star bashing the hell out of his equipment. The need to purchase replacements was inevitable.
“When Pete started to knock his equipment about, Cliff and I thought, ‘The kid’s gone stark-raving mad,’ ” Marshall recalled. “But we quickly realized it was a new form of showmanship that we wouldn’t have thought of in our day.”
A war of acquisition broke out between Townshend and the Who’s bass player—and compulsive shopper—John Entwistle.
“I bought some of the first Marshall cabinets ever made,” Entwistle later recollected. “I bought one and Pete bought one. I bought another one and Pete bought another one. And I said, ‘Well, is it loud enough? Fuck, I’ll buy two more.’ ”
But if you have more speaker cabinets, you need a more powerful amplifier to drive them. Which is why Townshend walked into Marshall’s shop in 1965 and demanded a 100-watt amplifier—twice as loud as the one Clapton used on the “Beano” album. Townshend’s request would result in what may well be the ultimate rock guitar amp, the Marshall Super Lead model 1959, which first hit the market in 1965. This model and other iterations produced between 1965 and ’69 are known as “plexi” Marshalls, nicknamed for the Plexiglas Marshall logo on the front of the amp. They are considered the most desirable and collectible Marshall amps.
Prior to this, the guitar amp had been a fairly anonymous piece of technical equipment—functional, utilitarian, not much different than a microphone stand or drum throne. It was something to be positioned as unobtrusively as possible onstage, low and to the rear, out of the sight line of audience members. But with the advent of the Marshall stack, amps became towering phallic monuments—tall as a human being and integral to the visual aesthetic of rock music in concert. The amp became part of the show—not to mention a more active partner in the creation of electric guitar tonalities. Townshend’s new 100-watt behemoth enabled him to generate frenzied feedback and doomsday distortion tones that mirrored the crazy, rebellious, sexual energy of sixties youth gone wild.
By 1967, however, Townshend had moved on from Marshall to Hiwatt amps, which were initially distributed by the U.K. music retailer Sound City. The amps were similar in design to Marshall’s, although built to stringent military specifications and thus more durable on the road. By some accounts, Townshend had moved away from Marshall because the Who had rung up a huge debt at Jim Marshall’s shop by replacing equipment destroyed onstage, and they couldn’t pay. But Townshend was also relentless in his quest for the ultimate guitar tone, and worked as closely with Hiwatt on amp design as he’d done with Marshall. In this way, he’s a key figure in the Les Paul tradition of guitarists who get deeply involved in the “under the hood” technicalities of equipment design as a way of realizing their musical vision.
ONE OF THE things Jimi Hendrix most wanted to do when he first hit London in late 1966 was meet Pete Townshend. This was a fairly easy thing for his manager, Chas Chandler, to arrange, as he had recently negotiated a deal for Hendrix to record for the Who’s label, Track Records. The former bass player for the Animals, Chandler had moved in the same British Invasion world as Townshend and the Who. But now he’d switched his focus to artist management and had discovered a phenomenally promising young guitar player in New York, a veteran of the African American chitlin’ circuit named Jimi Hendrix. In his mid-twenties at the time, Hendrix had made a splash on the Greenwich Village club scene, but had a much larger vision in mind. And a substantial part of that vision was the kind of larger-than-life sound that Townshend was coaxing from his amps.
The Who was in the recording studio when the two great architects of rock guitar met for the first time.
“Hendrix came to see me at IBC Studios and asked me what kind of amplifiers I should buy,” Townshend recalled. “Well, he didn’t actually say anything. Chas Chandler asked me what sort of amplifiers he should buy. And I said, ‘I like Hiwatts’—or Sound City, as they were called then—‘but he might prefer Marshall.’ And Jimi said, ‘Well, I’ll have one of each.’ For the first few dates that I saw, he was using both.”
Like most people who met Hendrix, Townshend noticed the guitarist’s soft-spoken, almost painfully shy demeanor, which contrasted starkly with his out-of-control stage performances. “Jimi was covered from head to foot in dust,” Townshend recalled of that first meeting. “He looked like he’d just come out of a skip, where you put builder’s rubbish. He was very scruffy and his military jacket had obviously seen better days. His skin was pale, and he was immediately nervous and shy and couldn’t speak—didn’t speak. I just put out my hand and said, ‘I’ve heard a lot about you.’ ”
At the time of the meeting, Townshend was playing Fender Stratocasters, and so was Hendrix. The latter guitarist had been given his first Strat during his time in Greenwich Village. The donor was friend and early benefactor Linda Keith, who at the time was Keith Richards’s girlfriend and is said to have been the inspiration for the Stones’ song “Ruby Tuesday.” The white Stratocaster she gave to Hendrix had been purloined from Richards himself. Hendrix had wanted one because it was the type of guitar played by two of his biggest idols, Buddy Guy and Otis Rush. And Linda Keith knew where to get one, appropriating the Strat without Richards’s knowledge.
It had been Linda who had spotted Hendrix in a Greenwich Village club and told Chandler to go check him out. Hendrix was then performing at the Cafe au Go Go in the Village with bluesman John Hammond—son of pioneering record executive John Hammond Jr., the man who had been instrumental to the success of Charlie Christian, among many others. But Hendrix also had his own group, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, who were playing at a variety of Village clubs, including Cafe Wha?, which is where Chandler first heard him.
The former Animals bassist was hardly the only musician in town eager to check out the Village’s new guitar sensation. Mike Bloomfield had also been tipped off about Hendrix. There was a kind of connection there already. Hendrix was a rabid fan of Bob Dylan—another artist who’d launched his career from the Village—and Bloomfield had of course served as Dylan’s guitarist. At this early point in Hendrix’s career, he’d already begun covering Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” This was of particular interest to Bloomfield, who’d played lead guitar on the original recording and now found himself gigging in the Village with the Butterfield Band right across the street from where Hendrix was performing.
“I was the hotshot guitarist on the block,” Bloomfield later told Guitar Player magazine.
I thought I was it. I’d never heard of Hendrix. Then someone said, “You got to see the guitar player with John Hammond.” I went right across the street and saw him. Hendrix knew who I was and that day, in front of my eyes, he burned me to death! I didn’t even get my guitar out. H-bombs were going off, guided missiles were flying, the surf, waves…I can’t tell you the sounds he was getting out of his instrument. He was getting every sound I was ever to hear him get, right there in that room with a Stratocaster, a [Fender] Twin [amp] and a Maestro Fuzz-Tone [pedal], and that was all.
Bloomfield introduced himself, saying, “Man, where you been?” To which Hendrix replied, “I been playing the chitlin’ circuit and I got bored shitless. I didn’t hear any guitar players doing anything new and I was bored out of my mind.”
Had Hendrix remained in the Village, performing as Jimmy James, he might not have won the adulation of anyone outside of a handful of guitar fanatics and Manhattan hipsters. It was Chandler’s inspiration to bring the guitarist over to England, team him with a British rhythm section—bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell—and dress them up in the Swinging London “psychedelic dandy” fashions then being pioneered by cutting-edge new boutiques like Granny Takes a Trip—billowing, ruffled shirts and wildly multicolored frock coats. Chandler also coached Hendrix’s nascent songwriting gift, providing input and lending him science fiction books to help fire his imagination.
The result was an utterly unique fusion of chitlin’ circuit soul and the amped-up excitement of Swinging London. No performer of African heritage had gone headlong into psychedelic rock in quite the same way before. In his dynamic stage performances Hendrix channeled all the great bluesmen and showmen who had gone before, copping moves from T-Bone Walker, Guitar Slim, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Guy—playing the guitar behind his head and between his legs, and picking the strings with his teeth. To this he added Townshendesque aggression and feedback-frenzied guitar mangling.
But it was Hendrix’s formidable playing technique that saved the whole thing from being mere pastiche. He exploited the full sonic potential of the Stratocaster to a degree that seemed to transcend the laws of physics. Leo Fender and his design team had built the Strat for both comfort and speed, with all controls and the vibrato arm within intimately easy reach of the player’s hand. Hendrix, however, obviated all that by flipping his Strats upside down and playing them left-handed. By restringing his right-handed guitars for left-handed playing, he put the strings in a different relationship to the pickups than they would be on a conventionally setup Strat. Right away, this changed things around sonically. Turning the body upside down positioned the controls in awkward places, but Hendrix’s hands were so big that this didn’t present him with as much of a problem as it would a player less digitally endowed. As a musician who later worked with Hendrix marveled, “His fingers were like rulers.”
No wonder all the top British guitar gods suddenly felt a few shades less divine.
“I shared with Eric [Clapton] that, fucking hell, when I first saw Jimi play I wanted to go and kill myself,” Townshend confided.
And he said, “Well I did too. But I didn’t think that would’ve affected you. I mean, he wasn’t in your arena.” But he was. He was someone working with showmanship, which is one of the directions where rock and roll was inevitably going to go. Jimi was one of the people who showed that there was something you could do in the curve of an arm or the movement of the tongue, the stance of the body and hairdo…where you combined showmanship and stagecraft. It was the beginnings of the great genius.
One thing that Hendrix brought to the stage—and which became a key factor in his massive popularity—was a frankly and blatantly sexual style of performance, flicking his tongue in a none-too-subtle simulation of cunnilingus, stroking his guitar like a lover, or shoving the neck between his legs and yanking it onanistically. Townshend’s performance style was more about anger than sex. Hendrix was the most overtly erotic rock-and-roll performer since Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. But where Elvis had wiggled his hips at an uptight, straitlaced post-World War II America, Hendrix was strutting his stuff before a newly sexually liberated audience.
One can easily see how blues-oriented British guitarists such as Eric Clapton felt especially intimidated by Hendrix. These were guys who had come up pretty much worshiping the image of the African American bluesman. They’d devoted themselves to emulating this musical style, only now to be confronted with the real deal—an authentic new-generation bluesman who was also embracing the Brits’ own musical contributions to create some new strain of cosmic mojo.
Authenticity was everything to Clapton, so the guitarist was impressed when Hendrix suggested that they jam on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” the first time they met and played together, at a late-1966 gig at Central London Polytechnic with Clapton’s new band at the time, Cream. Clapton, like Townshend, was an old British Invasion cohort of Chas Chandler’s, so it was relatively easy for Chandler to facilitate a first meeting between Hendrix and Clapton at the London venue.
“I thought it was incredible that he would know how to play this,” Clapton said of Hendrix’s choice of “Killing Floor,”
as it’s a tough one to get right. Of course Jimi played it exactly like it ought to be played and he totally blew me away. I mean you’re jamming with someone for the first time, most musicians will try to hold back, but Jimi just went for it. He played the guitar with his teeth, behind his head, lying on the floor, doing the splits…the whole business. It was amazing and it was musically great too, not just pyrotechnics. Even though I had already seen Buddy Guy and I knew that a lot of players could do this kind of stuff, it’s still pretty amazing when you’re standing right next to it. The audience were completely gob-smacked by what they saw and heard too. They loved it and I loved it too, but I remember thinking here was a force to be reckoned with. It scared me, because he was clearly going to be a huge star, and just as [Cream] were finding our own speed, here was the real thing.
Jeff Beck witnessed a similar phenomenon when Hendrix jammed with Clapton at the London School of Economics. “Eric was up front doing his stuff in front of all the girlies and along comes Jimi who sits in and upturns the apple cart.” Beck, too, initially felt like packing it in after witnessing Hendrix’s uncanny merger of showmanship and musicianship.
“Even if it had been crap, and it wasn’t, it got to the press,” he said. “People wanted that. They were just starved for theater and outrage. Any of us could be fantastic and stand there like a bunch of librarians. Regardless of great music, that’s still pretty boring to look at. Then Hendrix comes along, plays fabulously well and also does tricks, almost circus tricks, with the guitar.”
As it turned out, there was enough room in the burgeoning late-sixties rock scene for Hendrix, Townshend, Clapton, Beck, Page, and many other adventurous electric guitarists. All of these musicians found creative ways to employ the new range of tonalities opened up by the big 100-watt amplifiers. And by the decade’s second half, all would be working in the power trio format, with electric guitar, bass guitar, and drums forming the entire instrumental lineup of bands such as Cream, the Who, the Jeff Beck Group, and Led Zeppelin.
Marshalls and Hiwatts going into distortion created such a big, harmonically dense sound that there was no longer a need for a second guitarist or keyboard player to fill up the tonal canvas. Having a mere three instrumentalists in the band also created more space for each to improvise wildly and create elaborate parts. Bassists and drummers were no longer confined to a support role. And indeed, bass players such as Jack Bruce of Cream and John Entwistle of the Who became instrumental idols in their own right, as did Cream’s drummer, Ginger Baker, and the Who’s inimitable Keith Moon. But most of all, the era belonged to the guitar hero—larger-than-life shamans of the six-string.
NOT THAT IT happened overnight. Hendrix really struggled to get by when he first hit London. Chas Chandler had had to sell the bass guitar he’d played in the Animals at one point, in order to finance early Hendrix recording sessions. At the very end of 1966—December 20, to be precise—they’d been able to release a debut single on the Who’s Track Records label. It was a recording of “Hey Joe,” a tune that had been covered by many rock bands of the mid-sixties, with notable recordings by the Surfaris, the Leaves, the Standells, the Seeds, Love, the Music Machine, and the Byrds all predating the Hendrix disc. Hendrix’s own version is based quite heavily on a recording of “Hey Joe” by a folk-rock artist named Tim Rose, who took the song at a much slower, more somber tempo than earlier interpreters—an approach perhaps better suited to the song’s tale of a man who kills his unfaithful lover and must flee to escape the hangman’s noose.
Although the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s recording of “Hey Joe” failed to chart in the States, it was a major U.K. hit of early 1967. This gave Chandler and the group sufficient traction to record a debut album, although they were still scrambling to book sessions during late-evening downtime hours when studio rates were cheaper. By this time, Hendrix had found another key collaborator, the aforementioned guitar effects wizard Roger Mayer. A university-trained mechanical and electrical engineer, Mayer was working by day for the British Admiralty and teaming up with Hendrix at night to create a kaleidoscopic array of hitherto-unheard guitar tones generated by means of custom-built fuzz pedals, treble boosters, phasers, flangers, octave dividers, and wah-wah pedals.
The result of all this creative experimentation was released to the public on May 12, 1967, bearing the title Are You Experienced, the debut album from the Jimi Hendrix Experience. It was one of several epoch-defining albums released that year, a list which also includes the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (June 1), Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (August 5), Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow (February), Cream’s Disraeli Gears (November 10), and the Doors eponymous debut LP (January 4). All these records formed the soundtrack for the emergent hippie counterculture and psychedelic scenes that had blossomed in San Francisco, London, and elsewhere. Hippiedom was a smorgasbord of ideas and lifestyles, some inherited from the Beat generation of the fifties—Eastern spirituality, free love, pacifism, political activism, vegetarianism, and of course experimentation with psychedelic drugs.
But rock music was the glue that bound all this together, something that all the counterculture subcultures could—and did—rally around. In 1967’s Summer of Love, rock became a blazing sun, giving life and light to a number of satellite art forms—poster art, album graphics, light shows, fashion, film, experimental theater, new literary forms, and a new strain of music criticism that, for the first time, endeavored to write seriously and creatively about rock. In this cultural stew, the rock guitarist became the new Da Vinci, the new Shakespeare, the new Paganini—the romantic artist-hero par excellence. And Jimi Hendrix was the indisputable king of them all. His otherworldly guitar tonalities and adventurous playing seemed a direct evocation of the psychedelic experience. The sound was recognizable as an electric guitar, but, like one who embarks on an LSD trip, the instrument had clearly entered another dimension.
At a time before keyboard synthesizers became widespread, the electric guitar—fully rigged with a panoply of effects pedals and powerful new amps—became the musical instrument with the most wildly varied and expressive range of tonal possibilities. There was no instrument better equipped to express and reflect not only the hallucinogenic experience but also all the profound changes taking place in society during the latter half of the sixties.
III. THE BIRTH OF CLASSIC ROCK
Big Marshall amps, feedback, and aggressive onstage theatricality had all come into Jimi Hendrix’s stage act directly from Pete Townshend and the Who, as we’ve seen. This indebtedness became a major issue for both guitarists at the Monterey International Pop Music Festival, which took place in California in June of 1967. The Who and the Jimi Hendrix Experience both had a lot riding on Monterey. The festival would serve as the major American debut for both acts. Hendrix had never played the States with the Experience, and while the Who had been going strong for two years in England, their management hadn’t been able to get them over to America before ’67.
So here were two groups brand new to the American audience, both presenting a bold new approach to the electric guitar. Apart from a few die-hard rock fanatics, no one knew the genealogy of this approach. So whichever one went on second was in danger of seeming derivative of the other.
Monterey was a big deal in general—the first rock festival and, as such, the mother of all rock fests to come. Without Monterey, Woodstock might never have happened.
The idea of putting on a rock music festival had originated in a conversation between L.A.-based record producer Lou Adler, guitarist/singer/songwriter John Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas, and Paul McCartney. “We were talking about how rock and roll, although it was expanding as far as talent and the writing, was not considered an art form in the same way that jazz and folk were,” Adler recounted.
Adler and Phillips had also discussed how high-visibility festivals and concert series had played a key role in legitimizing both folk music and jazz as major art forms in years gone by. They wanted to do the same thing for rock music. Together with a few other organizers, including Beatles publicist Derek Taylor, they found the Monterey County Fairgrounds, located in an idyllic Northern California beach town. The fairground had long been home to the Monterey Folk Festival and the Monterey Jazz Festival. So it was the perfect venue. Two years after the electric guitar and rock music had muscled their way into Newport, the music was about to receive its very own festival.
It didn’t hurt that Monterey is just two hours south of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, ground zero for the emergent psychedelic rock scene. The festival was as much a coming-out party for hippiedom and psychedelia as it was a showcase for exciting new rock talent. Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones flew over from England to check out the scene and introduce some of the acts—including the Jimi Hendrix Experience. He was accompanied by Nico, the beautiful blond German actress, Warhol scenester, and Velvet Underground vocalist. The San Francisco Bay area had already been the site for love-ins, be-ins, acid tests, and other counterculture gatherings, but Monterey was the first time they were scored by three days’ worth of top musical talent playing a daring and vibrant new form of rock.
The idea was to bring together the best and brightest of current rock and pop acts of the day. This included emerging stars like Janis Joplin with her band Big Brother and the Holding Company, and kindred spirits from related genres such as soul music megastar Otis Redding and Indian classical maestro Ravi Shankar. The bill also included the Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, Canned Heat, Moby Grape, the Butterfield Blues Band, the Electric Flag, Buffalo Springfield, the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. All were major “buzz bands” of the day. Many featured highly regarded electric guitarists such as Quicksilver’s John Cipollina, the Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen, the Dead’s Jerry Garcia, Canned Heat’s Henry Vestine, and Barry Melton from Country Joe and the Fish. Counterculture guitar hero Mike Bloomfield was there as well, performing with both the Butterfield Band and the Electric Flag.
The majority of the acts were American. But the promoters asked both McCartney and Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham what the hottest thing in England was at the moment. The reply was immediate and unanimous: the Who and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Both acts were booked and scheduled to perform on the festival’s final evening, Sunday, June 18.
And that was the problem. The two bands were slated to play back-to-back. Neither one wanted to follow the other onto the stage. Which led to one of the festival’s legendary nonpublic performances—a backstage confrontation between Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix. The two men were friends and colleagues as much as they were rivals. So the scene was hardly hostile or angry—just intense and a little strange.
“Jimi was on acid, and he stood on a chair playing the guitar,” Townshend later recalled.
I was trying to get him to talk to me about the fact that I didn’t want the Who to follow him onto the stage. I said, “For fuck’s sake, Jimi, listen to me. I don’t want to go on after you. It’s bad enough that you’re here. It’s bad enough that you’re gonna fuck up my life. I’m not gonna have you steal my act. That’s the only thing we’ve got. You’re a great genius. They’ll appreciate that. But what do I do? I wear a Union Jack jacket and smash my guitar. Give me a break; let me go on first.” And he was, I thought, teasing me; you know, standing on a chair playing the guitar and ignoring me. But Brian Jones told me later on that he was just fucking completely whacked on acid.
Townshend was in a bit of a weak position. The Who’s management had been unable to meet the cost of shipping the group’s backline of Sound City amps over to the States. So for the Monterey concert and other U.S. tour dates in ’67, Townshend and bassist John Entwistle would be playing through American-made Vox Super Beatle amps, the result of an endorsement deal put together by their management. With the Super Beatle, Vox had forgone the tubes that had given earlier amps their distinctive color, in favor of the recently adopted transistor. Super Beatles were notorious for the amount of hiss they produced, and the transistor tone seemed tinny and “pinched” in comparison with the warmth and wallop of tubes. Consequently, the Super Beatle was a model that nobody very much liked, not even the Beatles.
Hendrix, on the other hand, would have his usual tube-driven powerhouse backline of British Marshall stacks. So the conflict over which group would play first wasn’t only about seeming like a copycat. Townshend also knew that if the Who followed Hendrix, his guitar sound wouldn’t have the same impact.
Hendrix was nervous about the gig as well. His chair-standing routine with Townshend may have been more a display of stage fright than arrogance.
“Monterey was predominantly a music festival, done up the way it’s supposed to be done up,” Hendrix later said. “Everything was perfect. I said, ‘Wow! Everything’s together! What am I gonna do?’ In other words, I was scared at that, almost. I was scared to go up there and play in front of all those people. You really want to turn those people on. It’s just like a feeling of really deep concern.”
Finally the decision was made that the Who would go on first. Some accounts say this was the result of a coin toss by John Phillips. According to other stories, Townshend forced the issue and Hendrix said, “That’s fine, you go on first. But I’m pulling out all the stops.”
Both sets were huge triumphs and festival high points, making a profound impression on the audience and launching major U.S. careers for both bands. But it’s interesting to compare the concluding moments of each band’s performance. Townshend smashed his Stratocaster in much the same way as he’d been doing since 1964—violently, angrily, but with a kind of youthful exuberance glinting through the anger. As always, Townshend was mirroring the rebellious, anarchistic side of youth culture. This was all new to America at the time, and many in the audience were truly shocked.
“That was something that I couldn’t fathom,” Mamas & the Papas singer and Monterey headliner Michelle Phillips later commented. “We took such care of our instruments. My God, if we saw a crack in a guitar we went crazy. They were like religious symbols to us. It seemed ungodly to smash your instruments.”
But when Hendrix set his Stratocaster alight at the conclusion of his set, it seemed more religious ritual than sacrilege or act of subversion. It wasn’t the first time he’d ended a performance in this manner. He’d done it at least once before in England, at the Finsbury Park Astoria Theatre, at Chas Chandler’s prompting. But, like the Who’s act, it was all new to America.
Fire is, of course, an ancient symbol of spiritual purification and transformation, and Monterey would prove an important rite of passage for Hendrix—a return to his homeland as a conquering hero. His guitar burning at Monterey seemed almost an eroticized sacrifice to propitiate whatever domestic deities might have been presiding over Monterey. Looking at film footage of the event, it’s clear that it was a sacrifice for Hendrix to torch the instrument. He was more of a traditional musician’s musician in that regard—in love with his axe. He kisses the guitar before setting it down on the stage, dropping to his knees, and straddling the instrument. After squirting cigarette lighter fluid from a small can onto the guitar, he drops a match onto it, waving his long slender fingers in the air above the instrument as if conjuring a spirit. Only once the thing was flaming did he pick it up and start smashing it, Townshend style, almost as an afterthought.
The two performances aptly reflect the dual faces of the rock guitarist in popular culture at the time—the anarchist warrior striking out against the oppressive old order, and the tantric shaman ushering in the new Age of Aquarius.
MONTEREY WAS ONE of the main catalysts in bringing psychedelic rock music and the hippie counterculture into the mainstream. It was part of a cultural shift that author Charles A. Reich would call “the greening of America” in a best-selling 1970 book of that title. Soft drink ads for Coca-Cola, 7UP, and Fanta began to sport psychedelic graphics, rock music, and counterculture slogans such as “Do Your Own Thing.” Counterculture themes formed the premise for television shows ranging from The Mod Squad to Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Only the latter program had any kind of actual underground cred, in part owning to appearances by musical guests including Cream, the Who, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and other rock luminaries.
All of those bands enjoyed stellar record sales in the period between 1967 and the decade’s end, as did the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The prominent vogue for electric blues and blues-rock guitar playing also gave rise to new heroes such as Johnny Winter, and Alvin Lee from the British group Ten Years After. Composer, satirist, and counterculture antagonist Frank Zappa began to move in more of a heavy guitar direction as the decade wore on, a direction cemented by his landmark 1969 solo album, Hot Rats.
The emergence of freeform FM rock radio in the latter half of the sixties provided an outlet for all this music to be heard. A higher-fidelity medium than AM radio, FM had long featured classical and “easy listening” programs. But a 1964 FCC ruling that AM stations could no longer just simulcast their AM signals on FM sent stations scrambling for new content. This provided an opening for progressive-minded DJs, such as San Francisco’s Tom Donahue and New York’s Scott Muni, to start broadcasting an eclectic blend of cutting-edge music based on their own personal tastes rather than a predetermined format. These DJs and those that followed their lead tended to favor long-form rock tracks with plenty of electric guitar soloing.
Often this rock music would be contextualized alongside traditional folk, blues, Indian raga, classical, and even poetry readings. But increasingly, rock music became the main draw, helping to foster album sales for the artists featured. In the U.K. a similar phenomenon took place with the rise of “pirate radio”—actual illegal radio stations broadcasting from ships just off the British coast, to circumvent BBC regulations and restrictions.
FM rock radio became the beacon, beaming into the suburbs and hinterlands the new underground rock sounds that had been brewing in the clubs, concert halls, and recording studios of London, New York, L.A., San Francisco, and other major cities. Broadcast in stereo—as opposed to AM radio’s monaural signal—FM became an ideal medium for the dynamic, ambitious new style of electric guitar-driven rock music that had sprung up in the wake of Hendrix’s Are You Experienced and like-minded discs.
Seeking a new, post-Yardbirds musical direction, Jeff Beck saw where all this was heading, although he had to talk his manager/producer at the time into taking it seriously. More of an old-school pop radio guy, Mickie Most had been trying to push the guitarist in a pop vocal direction.
“He couldn’t see a market in America for underground, hooliganistic kind of rock and roll,” Beck said of Most. “In fact, he was explicit in ’67-’68 when I was in big trouble with my musical career and direction. He said, ‘Oh, that Jimi Hendrix; all that twang twanging and feedback nonsense, it’s all finished.’ I said, ‘Excuse me, it’s just starting.’ ”
Beck was right, of course, which is perhaps why he named his debut solo album Truth. A landmark recording, often cited as a precursor to heavy metal, Truth featured future Rolling Stone Ron Wood on bass and Rod Stewart on vocals. Among other things, it is the album that launched Stewart’s career in a big way. But Truth’s main delight was, and remains, the sound of Jeff Beck, armed with a 1959 Gibson Les Paul, embracing the heavier new guitar sound just coming into vogue at the time, and that he had pioneered.
Beck’s old friend Jimmy Page also saw the direction in which rock music was heading—and the electric guitar’s enormous potential as a tool for crafting epic, episodic, bombastic tracks tailor-made for FM rock radio’s stereophonic signal. To that end, he assembled Led Zeppelin in ’68. The quartet’s self-titled debut album hit like a ton of bricks in January of ’69.
“I also knew that stereo FM [rock] radio was emerging in America for albums,” Page later said of Led Zeppelin’s genesis, “and I wanted to develop our songs emotionally, beyond just lengthy solos.”
Not that there was any shortage of those. Both Truth and Led Zeppelin rely heavily on twelve-bar blues numbers, launching pads for epic electric guitar soloing. But both discs, each in its own way, take in a much broader range of musical moods, referencing folk and, in Page’s case, a hint of raga—all styles that had been intermingling since ’65 and were now swimming together in the freeform FM stew.
Needless to say, these developments served to boost sales in electric guitar equipment, as well as in record albums. “From 1966 onwards Marshall enjoyed explosive growth and consolidated their position as the world’s premier rock guitar amplifier,” wrote amp historian Michael Doyle in 1993. Marshall-style brands such as Hiwatt and Orange also did well. New effects pedals began to flood the market, and, as we’ve seen, the Gibson Les Paul was back in production by late 1968. And thanks largely to Jimi Hendrix, the Fender Stratocaster was also enjoying a resurgence in sales.
THE HUGE POPULARITY of heavy, electric guitar-driven rock was certainly one of the main paving stones along the road to Woodstock. Significantly, the original design for the festival poster featured a dove perched atop a flute. But the flute was quickly changed to a guitar neck.
The rock festival concept had become popular in the aftermath of Monterey, but Woodstock was by far the largest, and the one with the most far-reaching cultural consequences. The August 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair was billed as “An Aquarian Exposition: Three Days of Peace and Music.” But it might just as accurately have been billed as “Monterey for the Masses.” Whereas the audience at Monterey was estimated at being somewhere between 25,000 and 90,000, the Woodstock crowd has been reckoned to have numbered between 400,000 and 1,000,000.
That was the difference that two years made. Few Americans, or people anywhere for that matter, had heard of Jimi Hendrix in early 1967; but there was hardly anyone on the planet who wasn’t aware of him by 1969. The same is true for many of the artists who appeared at both festivals: Janis Joplin, the Who, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, the Butterfield Blues Band, Canned Heat, and Ravi Shankar. The festival also served to launch the careers of several significant new acts, including Crosby, Stills & Nash, Santana, and the power trio Mountain led by guitarist Leslie West.
This time, however, there were no hassles as to who was going on when. For one thing, the festival was far too chaotic. But also, the rock universe had proven to be vast enough for all of the above-named acts to flourish.
If Monterey had been the coming-out party for the hippie counterculture, Woodstock was more of a farewell fete. A little over a month before Woodstock began, the rock scene was shocked by the drug and alcohol-related death of the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones. His passing was the harbinger of even more grim news. Within a year of the festival, both Hendrix and Joplin would be dead under similar circumstances. The Doors’ Jim Morrison followed suit in 1971. Influential rock bands were dying as well. Cream called it quits in 1969, followed by the Beatles in ’70.
BUT THERE WAS no stopping the momentum of what these artists had begun. Director Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary film of the Woodstock festival was arguably even more influential than the event itself. The film is what really burned the image of Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” indelibly into the culture’s collective consciousness. The late-sixties’ legacy, as embodied by Woodstock, provided a template for the classic rock seventies’ explosion of adventurous new subgenres, among them progressive rock, jazz-rock fusion, glam rock, art rock, Latin rock, heavy metal, country rock, and Southern boogie. These musical permutations brought many exciting new electric guitarists to the fore, including John McLaughlin (Mahavishnu Orchestra), Steve Howe (Yes), Mick Ronson (David Bowie), and Robert Fripp (King Crimson).
The era also saw the advent of professional guitar journalism, starting with the first issues of Guitar Player magazine in 1967. This phenomenon gathered considerable momentum in the seventies, with publications offering detailed articles on guitar equipment and playing techniques, not to mention the first reliable sheet music transcriptions of electric guitar rock and other genres.
Electric guitarists enthusiastically welcomed this new source of information, and it fostered a wonderful sense of community among guitar geeks. Ready access to details about guitar technology potentially made a Les Paul or Pete Townshend out of any guitarist. That is, a greater number of players began to think in terms of what was “under the hood” of their instrument, amplifier, and effects. All this would lead to an explosion of hot-rodded, ultra-dialed-in “rock machine” electric guitar gear, not to mention a crop of players with a very high degree of technical accomplishment (although perhaps not always as much in the way of taste).
This phenomenon also spelled the end of rock’s “folk music” phase, wherein players were largely self-taught and there were absolutely no rules as to what could or couldn’t be done. In this regard, guitar magazines tended to foster a kind of orthodoxy—valorizing certain guitar styles, players, attitudes, and equipment over others.
Meanwhile, rock radio also began to shift in the seventies. It got standardized, as freeform FM radio gave way to the highly structured AOR (album-oriented rock) format. This was the brainchild of Chicago DJ Lee Abrams, who introduced the idea of basing playlist choices on demographic research—the newly created, quasi- (or pseudo-) scientific field of “psychographics.” The Abrams format was packaged and sold to radio stations across America, displacing many freeform DJs and programs. The end result was a dramatic narrowing of the range of music heard on rock radio. Lengthy and guitar-intensive album tracks were still favored, but less “accessible,” more fringe or radical styles were shunted off the air. No more ragas or warbly voiced folksingers, but listeners could count on hearing a small handful of tracks, such as Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” multiple times daily. As the seventies wore on, this narrowcast selection came to be filled by the music of rock bands specifically tailored for the AOR format—Styx, Journey, Boston, Toto, Pablo Cruise, and a host of others who personified what would sometimes be known disparagingly as “corporate rock.”
The pushback to all this was punk rock, which gathered momentum in New York and London during the 1976-77 period, soon spreading worldwide. It was a genuine musical revolution. The weapons in the hands of nearly all the punk rock guitarists, though, were the same old Gibsons and Fenders. The only difference was a general indifference to guitar snobbery. Cheap models were just as good, if not better, than expensive ones.
For those who were listening, punk rock issued a loud and clear announcement that the first great era of the guitar hero was over. It had run its course, dead of a corporate infection. There would still be guitar heroes, of course, even within punk. But they would set their sights on virtues other than hot blues licks and histrionic guitar solos. Punk would offer a new kind of challenge, and a new kind of freedom, to guitarists in years to come: you could do anything you want, as long as it wasn’t the bombast that had come to typify mainstream rock.
Seminal punk band the Ramones had one cardinal rule, according to the group’s guitarist, Johnny Ramone: “No hippie shit. I tried to avoid that as much as I could…avoid it to the extreme and to play pure rock and roll and not instill any sort of blues or anything into the music.”
But of course not all guitarists were on board with punk’s agenda. Some weren’t so willing to let go of the old paradigm. This was particularly true for fans of heavy metal, the guitar-centric rock subgenre that had taken shape in the early seventies. Metal hadn’t gained much respect from rock critics, nor would it for decades to come. But it would provide a forum for development of the electric guitar—not to mention a brand-new breed of heroes.
Edward Van Halen and an early iteration of his “Frankenstrat”